BRUSSELS/COPENHAGEN (AFP, REUTERS) - Belgium announced Wednesday (March 24) a renewed partial lockdown of four weeks, with schools closed and non-essential stores open to customers by appointment only.
The decision came as a potential third wave of the coronavirus was gaining momentum in the EU country of 11.5 million, with hospitalisations on the rise.
The pandemic "is a big lesson in humility for politicians, for everyone," said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in announcing the measures.
The Belgian tightening will begin on Saturday and the intention remains to fully reopen the schools and ease the restrictions on April 19.
For the past five months, university students and some secondary school pupils have almost completely been working by distance.
Businesses with close contact with customers - mainly hairdressers, tattoo parlours and beauty shops - will be shut at least until that date.
Iceland also tightened their Covid-19 restrictions on Wednesday, including lowering the limit on public gatherings to 10 people, after seeing a spike in infections with a more contagious coronavirus variant.
Gyms, swimming pools, cinemas and nightclubs will need to close from Thursday, while hairdressers and beauty parlours can remain open and restaurants can serve guests until 10pm, the government said in a statement. Schools and universities will also close until at least after the Easter holidays.
The new rules, which will remain in force for three weeks, come after a spike in group infections in the past few days, the government said. All the new infections had been with a more contagious variant first identified in Britain.
In Belgium's new rules, the "outside bubble", the maximum number of people with which you are allowed to be with in public, will be reduced from 10 to four.
The school closure will begin a week ahead of a two-week Easter holiday, with the government trying to limit the impact on parents.
With Belgium already subject to a night curfew, a work-from-home edict and a general travel ban into and out of the country, the blame was put on the spread of the UK variant of the virus, which is more contagious and can have more severe effects.
The Belgian government is particularly concerned about a new risk of overloading intensive care units where the number of Covid-19 patients has more than doubled in six weeks to 637 on Wednesday.
The number of new cases on Tuesday averaged over 4,000 per day over the past week, a 41 per cent jump from the previous seven days. A fortnight ago, the number was still around 2,000 per day.
"The objective remains to have a worry-free summer, which is within our reach," De Croo said.
Official data showed that 11.4 per cent of the population aged over 18 years has received a first dose of vaccine, with five per cent having received both doses.
Neighbouring Luxembourg, meanwhile, announced that cafés and restaurants, which have been closed since the end of November, would be able to welcome customers again on their terraces from April 7.
Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said bars would be open until 6pm and compared the measure to "a small breath of air", while Covid-19 infections continue to rise in the grand duchy.